Enforcing child support

April 12, 1995

One reason Maryland has such a sorry record of collecting child support payments is that it has never adopted a comprehensive approach to the problem. As of 1994, some $771 million in court-ordered payments was owed to children in Maryland. Of that, $327 million should have gone to children whose families were receiving public assistance instead.

That said, it's time to face facts: Much of that money will never be collected because the non-custodial parents -- usually fathers -- simply don't have the money, and have no realistic prospects of earning enough to meet their obligations. Unlike some other states, notably New Jersey, Maryland has not come up with a system of setting child support payments that makes realistic allowance for the needs of poor fathers. In too many cases, it simply sets them up for failure.

A system that takes into account the needs of poor fathers or mothers who are ordered to pay child support would enable the state to focus on the real deadbeats -- the parents who can pay, but don't. As things now stand, the system is so bogged down it is relatively easy for a parent to get behind, stop paying altogether and slide through without any effective enforcement. That is especially true in Baltimore City where, in 1993, collections amounted to only 16 percent of the money owed to city children. That dismal figure dropped to 14 percent in 1994.

There are many ways to improve enforcement. One is to privatize the collection of child support, a system used with good results by Virginia and some other states. In its closing hours, the General Assembly approved a limited experiment in privatization. It's certainly worth a try.

Yet privatization is no panacea. Maryland still needs to overhaul its approach to child support, as well as its efforts to help non-custodial parents stay involved with their children. That's the best way to ensure that they will then make every effort to help support them.

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